By Jenny Hope
Fresh fears have been raised over the power of the food lobby after Health Minister Anne Milton was forced to disclose a full list of firms helping to make Britain healthier.
Companies such as Unilever and McDonald’s which will be part of the new public health strategy have met directly with government ministers, it emerged.
Top managers at Diageo – the drinks giant – and Kellogg’s have met with government special advisers, while civil servants at the Department of Health have held talks with Nestle and advertising chiefs.
The full list of those involved in the so-called ‘responsibility deal’ was disclosed in response to a parliamentary question from the shadow education minister Sharon Hodgson.
It comes after publication of a controversial public health White Paper earlier this month which advocates targets to reduce fat and salt are set voluntarily by food firms.
The plan was likened by campaigners to ‘putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank’.
The ‘responsibility deal’ will focus on five areas: food, alcohol, exercise, health at work and changing people’s behaviour.
It will be launched next year with the aim of drawing up voluntary agreements on cutting salt in food and giving consumers more information.
The voluntary ‘responsibility deal’ on curbing alcohol abuse is being drawn up with the help of the spirits manufacturer Diageo and Bacardi Brown Forman, the brewing giants SAB Miller, Molson Coors and Heineken, the largest wine company in the world and beer and spirit producer Constellation.
Supermarkets and indusutry lobby groups such as the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, the British Beer and Pub Association and the Portman Group are also involved while liver disease experts and public interest groups will also be consulted.
The network charged with behaviour change and implementing David Cameron’s ideas on ‘nudging’ the public into better public choices instead of regulating on public health includes Tesco, Mars UK, PepsiCo, the Food and Drink Federation and Alliance Boots.
They are joined by the advertising industry lobby groups the Advertising Association and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, and brand consultants Oxford Strategic Marketing, which works for two brewing giants and five of the top ten global food companies.
The Health at Work responsibility deal will work with several processed food giants including Unilever, Mars UK, Nestle, Kellogg’s, pasty makers Ginsters, and caterers Compass, together with drug producers and retailers Novo Nordisk and Alliance Boots.
The deal on physical fitness sees voluntary groups and sports organisations working alongside the fitness industry, Sky and GlaxoSmithKIine.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was criticised in the summer when he announced that firms such as Mars, Cadbury and Coca-Cola would take on a bigger role in funding anti-obesity campaigns.
He said he wanted to free food and drink firms from the ‘burden of regulation’ and would invite them to take on a greater role in public health, while stripping the Food Standards Agnecy of its role to set healthy targets for the industry.
The Children’s Food Campaign group said it was deeply concerned about a ‘corporate takeover of public health policy’.
Co-ordinator Jackie Schneider said ‘We know that the food industry is a very powerful lobbying force that can block progressive public health initiatives such as traffic light labelling and so this coy relationship sets off alarm bells.’
Professor Ian Gilmore, a leading liver specialist and until recently president of the Royal College of Physicians, said he was going to co-operate with the deals.
But he remained doubtful about their contribution to making the public healthier when the ‘priority of the drinks industry was to make money for shareholders while public health demanded a cut in consumption’.
Jeanette Longford of the campaigning group Sustain described the deals as ‘putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank’.
Shadow health secretary John Healey said ‘Andrew Lansley needs to explain clearly the extent of influence of these companies are having on health policy’.
The Department of Health said the responsibility deals were about working with business, industry and the retail sector ‘because their actions affect people’s lifestyle choices’.
A spokesman said ‘The health experts and charities working on the deals play an important role in challenging industry. We firmly believe that collective volunatry efforts can deliver real progress more quickly than regulation, but if this does not work we will consider the case for regulation.’